The unsympathetic view is that it's a total scam. For the past few weeks, Tokyo residents have been bombarded with adverts for Smap Aid, the latest CD from one of Japan's most enduring boy bands. It's a title that evokes memories of legendary musical fundraisers such as Band Aid and Live Aid, and also raises the ghastly prospect of Shingo Katori trying to sing 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' But, thankfully, it hasn't come to that. The album, which is released on August 17, is actually a compilation of 15 of the groups's most popular tracks, along with a Chinese-language version of 2003 smash hit 'Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana'.
Smap Aid was conceived in the wake of March 11, when radio stations were inundated with messages from listeners who'd had their spirits lifted by Smap's songs. The tracklist, voted for by fans, puts an emphasis on tunes with a more inspirational, chin-up message, running from early singles 'Original Smile' and 'Gambarimasho' to more recent hits such as 'This is Love' and 'Not Alone -Shiawase ni Narou Yo-'. 10,000 copies come with an invitation to a fan meet-and-greet at Seibuen Yuenchi Pool on September 9 – the 20th anniversary of the group's debut – and every disc is bundled with a handkerchief, to wipe away the tears of joy. The ¥3,750 price tag may seem excessive, but a portion of the proceeds will be donated to Marching J, the project started by talent agency Johnny & Associates to help areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami.
How much? A whopping ¥200 per copy. Just over 5% of the retail price.
Now, before you fling that Kimutaku effigy on the bonfire, it's worth pointing out that this isn't the only thing Smap have done to lift the nation's spirits (and finances) since March 11. There were those AC television ads, of course, and the group took part in the massive Marching J fundraiser gigs at Yoyogi National Gymnasium, which drew nearly 400,000 fans over three days at the start of April. They're also holding fan events around the country throughout the summer, all of the proceeds from which will be going straight to Marching J.
In the sympathetic reading, Smap Aid is just another example of Smap giving something back to their fans, and any money it raises for worthy causes should be seen as a bonus. This may strike some as a purely semantic point, but it hasn't actually been marketed as a charity album – and we didn't see anyone calling fellow Johnny's act Arashi stingy when they donated a whopping ¥0 per copy for the recently released Beautiful World, did we?
Those are all fair points. All the same, it's still hard to dismiss those initial misgivings about Smap Aid, a release that seems designed to evoke the same fuzzy feeling you'd get with a bona fide charity album, just without making any more than a cursory commitment to genuine fundraising. And while we wouldn't want to accuse anyone of outright cynicism here, there's a telling detail in the choice of bonus track for the album – the aforementioned Chinese version of the group's biggest-ever selling single.
On September 19, Smap are playing their first-ever overseas concert. Where? In Beijing, of course.